HL Deb 10 March 1902 vol 104 cc835-9

I should like to ask whether His Majesty's Government have any news to communicate to the House from South Africa.


My Lords, the following telegrams have been received at the War Office from Lord Kitchener—

Pretoria, 10.30 a.m., March 8th.

"I greatly regret to have to send you bad news about Methuen. He was moving with 900 mounted troops under Major Paris and 300 infantry, four guns, and one Pom-Pom from Wynburg to Lichtenburg, and was to meet Grenfell with 1,300 mounted troops at Rovirainesfontein on the 8th.

"Yesterday morning early he was attacked by De la Rey's force between Tweeboseh and Palmietkin11. The Boers charged on three sides.

"Five hundred and fifty mounted troops have come into line at Maribogo and Kraaipan. They were pursued by Boers for four miles from scene of action.

"They report Lord Methuen, Major Paris, guns, baggage, etc., were captured by Boers. Lord Methuen when last seen wag a prisoner.

"I have no details of casualties or any further information at present. Will keep you informed, and would suggest your delaying publication till I can send you definite news.

"I had already arranged to send troops to this district.

"I think this sudden revival of activity on the part of De la Rey is in order to draw off troops pressing De Wet."

Pretoria, March 9th.

"Major Paris has come in with remainder of men to Kraaipan. His report is that the column was moving in two parties, some with ox wagons left Tweebosch at 3 a.m.; mule wagons an hour later.

"Just after dawn Boers attacked. Before reinforcements could reach them the rear screen broke; meantime a large number of Boers galloping up on both flanks. These were at first checked by flank parties, but a panic and stampede of mules had begun and all the mule wagons with a terrible mixture of mounted men rushed past the ox wagons. All efforts to check them were unavailing.

"Major Paris collected some forty men and occupied position a mile in front of ox wagons, which were then halted. After gallant but useless defence the enemy rushed into ox wagons, and Lord Methuen was wounded in thigh.

"Major Paris, being surrounded, surrendered at 10 a. m.

"Lord Methuen is still in Boer camp.

"Casualties as follows—


"Lieutenants G. R. Venning and T. P. W. Nesham, both Royal Field Artillery; Lieutenant G. Hartley, Steinacker's Horse, and thirty-eight other ranks.


"Colonel J. G. Wilson, 3rd Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment, dangerous; Captain J. D. Outram, 3rd Battalion Highland Light Infantry, severe; Lieutenant M. Dennis, Yeomanry, severe; Lieutenant Nash, Cape Police, severe; and Lieutenant R. H. Logan, Yeomanry, severe; and seventy-two other ranks wounded, not yet received.


"Captain Tilney, 17th Lancers, and 200 others; but many of them are probably amongst those who have come into line.

"Lieutenants Nesham and Venning were killed whilst gallantly serving their guns with case."


My Lords, as Commander-in-Chief of the Army and one who in South Africa had full opportunities of estimating Lord Methuen's military qualifications as a commander, I feel that it would be unfair to him, and discouraging to the other commanders in the field, were I not to make, on the occasion of this unfortunate occurrence of which we have just heard, some expression of my appreciation of Lord Methuen's services during the war. When I arrived in South Africa in January, 1900, Lord Methuen was being subjected to very adverse criticism on account of his failure to force the Boer position at Magersfontein. One of the questions I had to decide was whether I should recommend that Lord Methuen should he recalled to England, or whether I should continue to employ him as one of my divisional commanders. I resolved to wait until I could see Lord Methuen myself and the troops under his command, and perhaps have an opportunity of personally inspecting the Boer position. The Boer position occupied a front of some eight miles across the railway. It was very difficult country, and completely blocked the road towards Kimberley. Lord Methuen found himself there with about 12,000 men, thirty-five guns, and only 1,000 mounted troops. His orders were to relieve Kimberley; and, influenced by the belief that the garrison and the inhabitants of Kimberley were in far greater straits than eventually turned out to be the case, Lord Methuen decided that he must make an effort to get to them. He saw that to attack by day would involve very heavy loss, and he decided to try a night attack. Night attacks are proverbially risky. But on this occasion the enemy were most certainly surprised, and there seems some reason to believe that, if the Highland alignment had not been broken by the thick bush and the deployment of the men thereby prevented, it is possible he might have succeeded. But I confess that when I had made a careful survey of the Boer position I came to the conclusion that Lord Methuen had been given an almost impossible task. When I arrived at Modder River on February 11th with a view of operating for the relief of Kimberley, I had at my disposal 45,000 men and 136 guns, and of these men 6,000 were mounted. This enabled me to make a wide turning movement, which with Lord Methuen's smaller force was impossible, and the success which was attained on that occasion was due to the greater mobility and strength of the forces which I had under my control. I came to the conclusion, therefore, that Lord Methuen could not be blamed for the failure to relieve Kimberley, and I decided, therefore, to keep him in his command. From that time until the present, which is more than two years, Lord Methuen has carried on his work with zeal, intelligence, and great perseverance. He has not had a check; he is beloved by his men; no work is too hard for him or for them. I feel sure that the House will be deeply grieved with me at what has occurred. I ask you to agree with me in my sympathy for this gallant officer in his present unfortunate position, and to reserve any adverse criticism on what has taken place until we have definite information as to whom the responsibility rests on and who is to blame for what has occurred. Of one thing I have no doubt—Lord Methuen has on more than one occasion assisted, helped, and looked after General Delarey's wife and family; and I am sure, from the desire to act in a humane and civilised manner, which General Dalarey has shown throughout the war, that Lord Methuen will be taken every care of by him.


My Lords, I hardly like to allow the interesting speech which has just been made to be heard by your Lordships without adding a few words. I am quite sure your Lordships have no necessity to assure the gallant Field-Marshal that no one at this moment would criticise, in the slightest degree, any action of Lord Methuen's during the war, or the continuance of him in his high command. We all appreciate very much the feeling which the noble and gallant Earl the Field-Marshal has shown in what he has said. We have the deepest possible sympathy for one whom we always knew as one of the most zealous soldiers in this country, and we have followed with the deepest possible interest his career in South Africa. It is not for me or any one of your Lordships to offer or hint at any criticism on the action which took place in the earlier period to which the noble and gallant Earl referred. We are sure that the noble and gallant Earl was justified in the confidence which he afterwards placed in Lord Methuen. Everybody in this country will deeply regret the misfortune that has happened to him, and feel the deepest possible sympathy for Lord Methuen. I thought I should say these few words after what the noble and gallant Earl has said, because it would, I am sure, be very distasteful to your Lordships if anyone in this House failed to feel the fullest sympathy for Lord Methuen.


My Lords, I am sure that the feeling in this House will be one of sincere sympathy with the generous and graceful language which has been used by the Commander-in-Chief, and which has been reciprocated by the noble Earl opposite. This would not be the time, even if the time ever occurred, to enter into any examination of Lord Methuen's actions. We are quite certain that he has displayed on this occasion, as he always has, the greatest gallantry, and that he deserves the highest sympathy of His Majesty's subjects. I have only risen to enforce the suggestion of the noble Earl the Commander-in-Chief that we should defer any criticism of the very sad intelligence which has reached us until all the details are more fully before us and we can speak with greater confidence of matters which are far from clear at the present moment. We are convinced that Lord Methuen has done his best, and has been the victim of a most melancholy coincidence; and I am sure he will feel that in his misfortune he has the sympathy and also the admiration of his fellow-subjects with whom he has lived and for whom he has worked.